In early education, quality is what counts

There has been a lot of conflicting information in the local and national press recently about pre-kindergarten. As longtime practitioners of the art of early childhood education, the Maryland Family Network would like to offer some perspective and broaden the conversation.

First, publicly funded pre-K is just one piece of a much larger system of early care and education. This system consists of child care centers, family child care, Head Start and a range of other early learning settings, such as private nursery school.

The Baltimore Sun's recent article on the city's revamped pre-k program brought welcome news of gains in school readiness (cognitive, social and physical skills) for the "graduates" of public pre-K programs. However, revamped pre-K is only one source of improved school readiness, and a negative quotation implying that children just play and don't learn in child care is misleading. (Play is the best way for young children to learn, but that's another discussion.)

The fact is that early care professionals in all settings have stepped up their game. When kindergartners were assessed in the fall of 2012, 83 percent of children who attended Baltimore's publicly funded pre-K were deemed "fully ready," as The Sun noted, an improvement from 77 percent the year before. However, similar gains were reported for kindergartners coming from child care centers in the city: 77 percent fully ready, up from 71 percent the year before. And 76 percent of Baltimore Head Start graduates were assessed as fully ready, up from 70 percent.

As The Sun notes, "A statewide emphasis on early-childhood education has boosted the percentage of Maryland students who enter kindergarten 'fully ready' — from 49 percent in 2002 to 82 percent in 2012." This statewide emphasis has included enhanced training and on-site technical assistance for child care providers in all aspects of early learning, including the all-important area of social and emotional competence. Head Start has undertaken significant reforms, and Maryland's Head Start program recently met goals regarding completion of two-year and four-year degrees for various levels of staff. And early educators in all settings now have access to free consultation about challenging childhood behaviors and early childhood mental health.

What is important is not the type of program providing preschool; it is the quality of that program. High quality is the key to delivering good outcomes (e.g. school readiness) for young children, and it is not the property of any specific type of care. High quality flows from appropriate curriculum, a safe and stimulating environment, and nurturing relationships. It requires adequate regulation of child care programs, training and technical assistance for early care professionals, as well as sufficient funding.

Sufficient funding is required so that all parents, including low-income parents, have access to high-quality programs for their children from birth to age 5. This means that we must sufficiently fund the Child Care Subsidy Program, which uses designated federal and state funds to help low-income parents pay for child care as they strive to enter and remain in the work force. It also means we must find a way to provide adequate compensation for the professionals who staff all early care and education settings. And we must continue to push for universal access to publicly funded pre-K for all 4-year-old children whose parents want it.

In Maryland now, the state foots the bill for about 45 percent of the cost of pre-K, with local governments picking up the rest of the tab. The state makes this substantial investment under provisions of the Thornton Act, which mandates that public pre-K be offered to all economically disadvantaged 4-year olds.

Part of the excitement about pre-K is that it benefits from this relatively secure funding stream. In contrast, the Child Care Subsidy Program, which is a significant financial component of the child care system, is quite underfunded. Because of funding shortfalls, due primarily to federal cutbacks, it does not reliably serve all eligible families. And even when enrollment in the subsidy program is open, the reimbursement rates are so low that participating families are relegated to the cheapest care in their communities. Meanwhile, family eligibility remains fixed at a decade-old level (a family of three has to make less than $30,000 annually to qualify), and parent co-payments pose an enormous burden.

It is certainly true, as the Sun article points out, that Maryland has been a leader in early childhood education. And it was partly on this basis that Maryland won a $50 million federal grant in the Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge. The state will use this money for various purposes related to school readiness, but primarily for programs that result in improving access of low-income children to high-quality child care programs. Legislation introduced by Sen. Bill Ferguson and Del. Sandy Rosenberg in the 2013 session of the Maryland General Assembly would have dedicated state funds to a similar "Race to the Tots" competitive grant program for Maryland counties. We hope to see this bill return in some form next session.

In sum, children from birth to age 5 are being nurtured and educated in a variety of settings. And in each type of setting, early educators are embracing initiatives and training that are helping them provide learning experiences so that children develop the skills they will need to succeed in school and in life. We know how to provide young children with the early education they need to thrive. We just need to muster sufficient resources to deliver it.

Margaret Williams is executive director of the Maryland Family Network. Her email is

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